The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Fitness

Active Cities: Denver

As you’d expect from one of the fittest states in the nation, Colorado’s capital has everything you need to get—and stay—in shape for any adventure.

Run

Washington Park: “Wash Park” is metropolitan Denver’s outdoor gym. The 2.25-mile road that circumnavigates the park is closed to cars (with the exception of two short sections) throughout the year, which makes its undulating terrain ideal for speed work. The 2.75-mile shaded gravel track around the perimeter attracts hundreds of runners a day. Use one of the city’s B-Cycle bike share rigs to ride to the park and back: there are stations on both the north and south sides of the park.

Road Bike

Cherry Creek Trail: Where else can you hop on a bike downtown and go for a near-30-mile out-and-back ride without dealing with any cars, stoplights, or stop signs? That’s the beauty of this route. It ends at Cherry Creek State Park, where a pleasant 9.5-mile loop around the reservoir exposes you only to two stoplights and roads with 25-mile-an-hour speed limits.

Kayak

Clear Creek White Water Park: Smack-dab in the middle of Golden, there’s a quarter-mile of drops, surf waves, and fast eddies that make up this urban kayaking park. Leave your car at the put-in at Lions Park, or downstream at the takeout near Vanover Park. Rent a kayak, paddle, and all your other gear at Golden River Sports, located three blocks north of the whitewater area.

Explore

Red Rocks Amphitheater: One of America’s most scenic concert venues is also one of Denver’s top escapes for killer workouts or for beautiful trail runs, hikes, and mountain-bike rides. On weekend mornings, you might rub elbows with a local pro athlete—and several dozen other supremely fit individuals—jumping up (and back down) all 69 rows of the amphitheater.

Work Out

Pura Vida: Call it the city gym that looks and feels like a high-end destination spa. This is where Denver’s beautiful people go to get, well, beautiful. Located in the heart of the Cherry Creek shopping district, Pura Vida has classes for fitness junkies of every stripe, from the mellow program called Thai Chi to the superintense all-around strength and conditioning classes held in the Underground. Each visit costs $20.

Gear Up

REI: The gear nirvana’s gigantic downtown-Denver store sits at the junction of three choice running and biking escapes—the Cherry Creek Trail, the South Platte River Trail, and West 23rd Avenue. This makes REI a popular meeting place for recreational athletes of every kind. Find all you need—including a canoe to float the adjacent South Platte River in proper style—within the retailer’s walls. Its proximity to hip restaurants in the Highlands area is another big plus.

 

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Daydream Yourself to a New Personal Best

It’s six in the morning on a Saturday and your alarm is blaring. Will you sleep in or get after it? According to the latest research from the University of New Hampshire, daydreaming about your last hike will get you out the door.

In a study published by ScienceDaily.com, 150 students were asked to recall either a positive or negative memory about past exercise. A third group of students were not asked to think about a motivating memory. A week later, all of the students were surveyed to take a look at their exercise adherence in relation to the type of memories they recalled. 

The verdict? Thinking about positive memories, like that time you crushed your marathon PR, serves you best when it comes to getting outside. Negative memories—surprisingly—weren’t far behind. “The act of thinking about exercise, whether it's positive or negative, means you're already engaged in the concept,” says Jonathan Katz, sports psychologist and managing partner at High Performance Associates. “Not thinking about it is a way of distancing yourself psychologically from the activity as much as possible.”

To make the most of your memory motivation, Duncan Simpson, Ph.D., sports psychologist, says to make a “success list” about previous exercise successes such as your first triathlon or favorite trail run. To rein in each memory’s power, use vivid imagery to play back the exercise experience “story” in your mind. “For this technique to be most effective, the image must be vivid (incorporate as many senses as possible), and control the image in terms of timing and realism,” says Simpson.

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Smile for the Finish: Kenenis Bekele in Pursuit of World Marathon Record

Great track runners don’t always make great marathoners, but on Sunday, 31-year-old Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele won the Paris Marathon in 2:05:03, which makes him one of the fastest first-time marathoners in history. Bekele is the world record holder at 5,000 (12:37) and 10,000 meters (26:17), and suddenly he looks like an odds-on contender to take a crack at the current world marathon record, 2:03:23, held by Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang.

Track fans have been speculating about Bekele’s move to the marathon for at least a decade, ever since he broke Haile Gebrselassie’s 5,000 and 10,000 world records, won his first of nine world and Olympic titles, and compelled Geb to move up to the marathon. After a few sluggish races, Geb eventually knocked almost a minute off the previous record and became the first man ever to run a marathon under 2:04. If Geb could do that, people wondered, what could Bekele do in the marathon?

Sunday’s race suggests that Kipsang better guard his mark carefully. On its face, a 2:05 marathon in this era isn’t that impressive: nine men ran faster last year alone. But Bekele is unlike today’s top marathoners, most of whom have come to the event without spending years honing their speed on the track. And track racing may be a slight disadvantage.

Recently, as marathon times have plummeted, some coaches have argued that prolonged shorter-distance racing forces runners to optimize fuel consumption for speed instead of efficiency, which is paramount in the marathon. Lots of fast runners don't make the transition well: Zersenay Tadese, the world record holder in the half-marathon, has never run a marathon under 2:10. Likewise, it took Deena Kastor—who holds the American women’s record at 2:19—six attempts to break 2:21. That trend holds true for plenty of other elites, too. (Next weekend in London, we'll see how well Mo Farah, the reigning Olympic and World champion at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, fares in his marathon debut. Unlike Bekele, Farah will test himself against both the distance and one of the best marathon fields ever assembled.)

So there was a risk that Bekele, who has spent 15 years training for 5,000 and 10,000 races, would struggle to run a fast marathon. And at age 31, with only a few top races to his name since 2009, it was possible that he simply never would. That’s no longer a concern. And given the course—compared to Berlin, Rotterdam, or London, Paris is somewhat hilly—and the lack of competition Bekele faced over the final 15 kilometers, there's room for him to go significantly faster. On the letsrun.com message boards, posters have been speculating that Bekele might soon become the first man to run under 2:03. The smart money is rarely on an aging runner with a history of injury problems, but after Paris, betting on a world record for Bekele by year’s end wouldn’t be stupid, either.

And if not in 2014, maybe next year. Last week, Bekele’s manager, Jos Hermens, told the New York Times that Bekele has recently been distracted by business projects in Addis Ababa. “He has to get his act together, and stay motivated and forget about business and run for five or six years,” Hermens said. 

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Nope, Running Isn't Going to Shorten Your Lifespan

A week ago, the Internet lit up with a headline that rocked runners. There were many variations, but it went something like this: Study suggests too much running causes shorter lifespan. The headline was wrong.

Anyone following the “how much is too much” debate might’ve thought the stories were reposted from 2012, when cardiologist James O’Keefe published an article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings claiming that long-term excessive endurance exercise—marathons, ultramarathons, Ironmans—may remodel the heart in a harmful way. 

O’Keefe’s revelation garnered a lot of press, but it was a hypothesis with little science behind it. In fact, O’Keefe’s line of thought resembled something like a DirecTV commercial: When your cable company keeps you on hold, you get angry. When you’re angry, you go blow off steam. And so on and so forth until you end up in a roadside ditch.

The heart, O’Keefe explained to TIME, pumps about five quarts of blood per minute at rest. Running, it can pump 35 or 40 quarts per minute. Running for miles on end can overtax the heart. Overtaxing the heart can cause heart fibers to tear. Torn fibers will lead to scar tissue, which can lead to abnormal heart rhythms and a premature death.

It sounds logical, but O’Keefe’s reasoning and his conclusion that that running more than 20 miles per week could actually be bad for you were largely discounted by his contemporaries barring more solid scientific proof. One researcher I interviewed for Outside even called O’Keefe’s allegations “warmongering.”

So what’s up with last week’s headlines?

Nobody has said O’Keefe was flat-out wrong. Researchers generally agree with the idea that there is a threshold after which more exercise can have adverse health effects. What they don’t agree on is where that threshold lies, a fact that may take more than 10 years from now to discern. (Why? It takes thousands of subjects enrolled in a study over a decade or more to figure out something like the effect of endurance exercise on mortality.)

Last week’s headlines referred to ongoing research called the "Masters Running Study" that hopes to one day draw its own conclusions about running and mortality. But it hasn’t yet. That’s why the headlines are wrong.

Other studies, including O’Keefe’s research and the oft-cited "Copenhagen Heart Study," which included a 27-year jogging sub-study that analyzed data from 1,878 runners between 1976 and 2003, promoted the idea of a U-shaped curve relating time spent exercising and mortality.

The Copenhagen Heart “found that between one hour and two and a half hours a week, undertaken over two to three sessions, delivered the optimum benefits, especially when performed at a slow or average pace,” the European Society of Cardiology explained. Any more or less, and lifespan may decline, though researchers could not say exactly why (though many outside experts have noted serious flaws in the interpretation of the data).

The "Masters Running Study," an online survey (you can take it here) spearheaded by co-director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Allentown’s Lehigh Valley Health Network, Dr. Martin Matsumura, sought to explain why that U-shaped curve may exist—why people who run more than 20 miles per week could, according to O’Keefe and the Copenhagen study, shorten their lifespans.

Matsumura and his colleagues looked into whether or not NSAID use, medication, and cardiac risk factors such as hypertension, smoking, and diabetes played a role in creating that curve.

The results so far: a shorter lifespan in people who run more than 20 miles per week could not be explained by an increase in cardiac risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, hypertension, or a family history of coronary artery disease, because there wasn’t one; both sub-20 mile-per-week runners and higher volume runners had similar backgrounds. Nor could it be explained by an increase in NSAID use, because runners who ran less than 20 miles per week actually used them the most, or the use of other drugs like aspirin.

These results were recently presented at the at the American College of Cardiology's annual meeting in Washington, D.C., sparking the flurry of headlines cursing avid runners to an early death. Because none of the factors mentioned above could explain the curve, “that caused the media to interpret that sure enough, it must be running” that’s the culprit, Matsumura says. “But I still don’t think we know.”

Matsumura believes O’Keefe and the Copenhagen study draw conclusions about running and health that may not apply to today’s runners, as they began recruiting runners in the ‘70s. 

“When you think back to runners in the ‘70s, I think training, diet, and education were different. The medical community didn’t really know how to approach runners,” Matsumura says. “Today’s runners are a very self-educated and proactive group. They know about nutrition and training. I think the contemporary runner is definitely a different beast than those 20, 30 years ago.”

In other words, while that U-shaped curve likely exists, it may not sharply peak at 2.5 hours or 20 miles of moderate jogging per week for today’s runners. The curve may be broader or peak later. And it may not be caused by the running but outside factors.

Matsumura and his colleagues hope more people will participate in the "Masters Running Study" and that, in another decade or so, he and his colleagues be able to draw more scientific conclusions about that curve and the effect of running on the modern runner’s mortality.

(It must be noted that it’s entirely possible that today’s “modern runner” will look like a Converse-wearing ‘70s runner to the runners of the future, and so this running-mortality, exercise-threshold, who-does-it-apply-to debate could beat on for all eternity.)

“We now have well over 5,000 runners recruited for this study,” Matsumura says. “We’ll be following them so we’ll know if they drop dead from running.”

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The Upside of Injury

It all started in August, when I was 12 miles into a 15-mile run on a rural Missouri highway. Shin splints and achy feet were realities I’d learned to live with. But with one decisive landing, my left foot cracked inside that lug-outfitted, cotton candy–pink Newton shell.

Fast-forward six months to a healed metatarsal stress fracture, a two-week trek through Europe, and a lot of reduced mileage—and you’d find me raring to go on some lovely spring runs. But I was pain-riddled. It was my tibia this time. Let’s put this lightly: I did not handle it well.

No runner ever does. Especially not Desiree Davila Linden, the hardworking, nose-to-the-grindstone woman who went from running the race of her life at the 2011 Boston Marathon to suffering a stress fracture in her femoral shaft (yes, a stress fracture in the body’s strongest bone). “The injury was super-upsetting,” she says. “But you have to realize that it’s real, that you have to give up your race, and that you’ll get better.”

It’s a rebuilding process, explains Linden, and injuries are just a natural part of the sport. They’re going to happen, and they can be opportunities—if we take them—to learn about ourselves.

So it makes sense that my first reaction to the injury was denial. (Just keep running, and it’ll take care of itself, right?) The human body has to be that impressive—I mean, if a salamander can regrow its tail, I can whip up some bone mass, no problem. So I continued my routine of six miles here, nine miles there, and a few 13-milers tossed in for good measure. Every morning, getting out of bed got harder and harder.

My second reaction? Acceptance—and a new plan. My leg hurts, and it will keep hurting. It has a crack in it that’s slowly turning into a ravine. Not the best way to heal, clearly.

If an Olympian is telling me that some extra time spent in the pool, on the elliptical, or anywhere that isn’t the roads I run on is a good thing, then, by golly, I should listen. So I did.

“There’s this cool thing you can tap into while being injured—this mindset of ‘I’m tougher than I thought, and I know how to hurt a lot,’” laughs Linden. “It says a lot about you as a person if you break your bones from running.”

I’m on a new plan—less running and more of everything else—and I’m OK with that. It’s fun to take on the challenge of working out without tying on my trainers for a run. And I am sore, which I didn’t know was even possible at this point in my fitness “career.”

I may not be on the path I want to be on right now, but this one is offering some pretty nice alternative routes. Maybe being injured isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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